Meal Frequency: The Truth Is Out!

Does eating more meals a day boost your metabolism, or just your dish count?

What if I told you “the more you eat, the more you will lose weight?” Sound too good to be true? Well, you would be right. Over eating will lead to weight gain. Which is why it drives me up a wall when people say that eating small meals more frequently will boost your metabolism, make you feel fuller on fewer calories, and/or balance your hormones (i.e. insulin) and thus help you lose weight. Not only are these claims not true, but at the end of the day, we suck at guessing how many calories we eat. Try it yourself by taking a quiz if you want. In general, if you eat more meals, you’ll overeat at more meals. So let’s take a look at the claims, and what you should try instead!
Mo Meals Mo Problems!
I don’t know about you, but I hate doing dishes. So when I was advised to eat meals more frequently to keep myself lean, my laziness made me skeptical. What I found out was that eating more meals really just boosted your dish count and not your metabolism. I mean sure, you will increase your energy expenditure by eating (1). But if you think that you will every out burn the calories you’re taking in you’re crazy! This is because with most meals you will only burn around 10% of calories consumed regardless of frequency. So if you think eating more meals per day is going to help you lose weight or decrease your fat mass %, you’ve got another thing coming (2). And that would be dishes.
Fill Er Up
Do you save time and money by stopping for gas every day? No (at least I hope you don’t have to drive that much). It would probably only annoy you to stop that frequently, and you would waste time and energy doing it. Same goes for eating meals at a greater frequency. Not only will it not hep you with burning fat, but it may leave you feeling less satiated (hunger satisfied) at the end of the day (3). Of course, this may not be true for everyone but that’s the point (4). It’s not “a fact” that more meals are superior because they keep you feeling full. If you eat more frequently just because someone told you it will help with weight loss, you may end up being annoyed that you have to stop what you’re doing just to fuel up for no reason (5).
I’ve written about how insulin is not to blame in the past. But time and time again the insulin monster comes up in the media as if our pancreas is out to get us. But more and more studies are coming out showing that “Current scientific evidence does not support the ‘carbohydrate-insulin model of obesity’” (6). In fact, when it comes to controlling insulin, eating two meals a day is probably better than eating 6 meals a day (7)! At the end of the day bringing up insulin is a moot point. If you’re eating too many calories you will gain weight irrespective of how much insulin you have flowing through your veins. The only exception to consider here would be the amount of protein you’re getting. It’s generally better to spread it out through the day rather than get it in a couple of large doses (8). Even then, the net benefits are negligible for most casual gym goers.
So What Now?
If more isn’t better, then what is? Well the answer to that question, like so many others, is that it’s up to you. The best advice I can give regarding meal frequency is that it should fit your lifestyle. If you want to eat a bunch of little meals or just a few large ones, that’s fine.Just be consistent in your approach because irregular eating patterns may negatively impact your metabolism (9). If you’re looking for some hard and fast guidelines, I’m not the best guy to go to. However, generally speaking, I would suggest three daily meals spaced out no more than every five to six hours to promote lean muscle.
1. Mercier, I., LeBlanc, J., & Nadeau, A. (1993). Components of postprandial thermogenesis in relation to meal frequency in humans. Canadian Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology, 71(12), 879-883. doi:10.1139/y93-133
2. Jon Schoenfeld, B., Albert Aragon, A., & Krieger, J. W. (2015). Effects of meal frequency on weight loss and body composition: A meta-analysis. Nutrition Reviews, 73(2), 69-82. doi:10.1093/nutrit/nuu017
3. Ohkawara, K., Cornier, M., Kohrt, W. M., & Melanson, E. L. (2013). Effects of increased meal frequency on fat oxidation and perceived hunger. Obesity (Silver Spring, Md.), 21(2), 336-343. doi:10.1002/oby.20032
4. Smeets, A. J., & Westerterp-Plantenga, M. S. (2008). Acute effects on metabolism and appetite profile of one meal difference in the lower range of meal frequency. British Journal of Nutrition, 99(6), 1316-1321. doi:10.1017/S0007114507877646
5. Cameron, J. D., Cyr, M., & Doucet, É. (2010). Increased meal frequency does not promote greater weight loss in subjects who were prescribed an 8-week equi-energetic energy-restricted diet. British Journal of Nutrition, 103(8), 1098-1101. doi:10.1017/S0007114509992984
6. Bosy-Westphal,A, Hagele,F., & Nas,A. (2016). Impact of dietary glycemic challenge on fuel partitioning, Eur J Clin Nutr, 1038(10), 1476-5640. doi: 10.1038/ejcn.2016.230
7. Kahleova, H., Belinova, L., Malinska, H., Oliyarnyk, O., Trnovska, J., Skop, V., . . . Pelikanova, T. (2014). Eating two larger meals a day (breakfast and lunch) is more effective than six smaller meals in a reduced-energy regimen for patients with type 2 diabetes: A randomised crossover study. Diabetologia, 57(8), 1552-1560. doi:10.1007/s00125-014-3253-5
8. Areta, J. L., Burke, L. M., Ross, M. L., Camera, D. M., West, D. W. D., Broad, E. M., . . . Coffey, V. G. (2013). Timing and distribution of protein ingestion during prolonged recovery from resistance exercise alters myofibrillar protein synthesis. The Journal of Physiology, 591(9), 2319-2331. doi:10.1113/jphysiol.2012.244897
9. Farshchi, H. R., Taylor, M. A., & Macdonald, I. A. (2005). Beneficial metabolic effects of regular meal frequency on dietary thermogenesis, insulin sensitivity, and fasting lipid profiles in healthy obese women. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 81(1), 16.

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